This week, I would like for us to explore the implications of this way of understanding sin for our lives as Christians. We will divide these implications into two broad categories: personal and spiritual on the one hand, and social and political (in the broad sense of that term) on the other. A single point, however, will emerge from both discussions. We must account for the ways in which negative experiences impact our thinking and behavior, but we cannot use those negative experiences as an excuse for the wrong things that we have done.
Personal and Spiritual Implications
If we can say that sin is (at least often) an inappropriate response to negative experiences, and if the gospel is supposed to produce in us a more healthy relationship with suffering (see Romans 5:1-11; 8:31-39) then we need to reconsider how we understand the Christian life. Following Jesus is a complex endeavor, and no one description can adequately capture all of the ups and downs of the Christian journey. But we certainly need to think about it as an opportunity to re-evaluate the role of negative experiences in our lives.
The reconsideration that I am proposing is not simply a Jedi mind trick; it is not merely designed to help us overcome the unhappy consequences of life in the real world through the power of positive thinking. There is no way to put a positive spin on some of the things that happen to us. We need to be able to relate honestly and empathetically to those in our world who suffer if we are going to be able to minister effectively in Jesus’ name. (More on this last point in a moment.)
Rather than being an exercise in wishful thinking, the kind of reconsideration that we are talking about entails looking at our negative experiences through the realistic and sophisticated lenses provided to us by the Bible. When we do so, we will gain the resources necessary to avoid simplistic and over-spiritualized explanations, but we will also gain clarity about the place of negative experiences in God’s redemptive activity in the world. In other words, we will gain the kind of balanced perspective that allows us to grieve the disappointment, pain, and shame that we endure but that also allows us to see how these experiences fit into the matrix of God’s loving activity on our behalf.
As we engage the task of thinking differently about the Christian journey, we will also need to think differently about the task of discipleship. In recent years, a chorus of voices (including Jim Wilder, Marcus Warner, Curt Thompson, and Peter Scazzero) have urged the church to re-imagine discipleship in a way that takes into account the whole person—body, intellect, emotions, and more. Spiritual maturity is more than a matter of instruction in right behavior. It includes induction into a community with a particular story, an identity that is commensurate with that story, and a set of values that flow out of the story and identity that members share with one another. It also includes addressing the emotional wounds and logical fallacies that undermine our trust in God and that separate us from one another.
Part of the process involves engaging thoroughly and honestly with our own story. It means looking at our negative experiences as they really are, with all of the disappointment, pain, and shame in full view. But it also involves laying aside any excuses that we might make for our lack of love for and trust in God. After all, everyone else who has ever lived also had negative experiences that they had to overcome. The difference between those who succeed and those who fail is how they react to those experiences.
Now, let me be clear about what I am saying—and about what I am not saying. I am not saying that God never has mercy on us because we have experienced something that is particularly disappointing, painful, or shameful, and I am not saying that we have a right to condemn others based on their inability to cope with the disappointment, pain, and shame in their life. God is a God of grace, and we should be people of grace. What I am saying is that part of God’s grace is to deliver us from our slavery to our negative experiences. The cross models for us what it looks like to be fully free from the power of sin, and the resurrection has broken sin’s power over us by depriving sin of its most destructive weapon (death). Our excuses only perpetuate our slavery to sin, and God loves us too much to let us remain in sin’s malevolent clutches.
Social and Political Implications
A similarly balanced perspective needs to inform how we handle sin in a public or institutional setting. On the one hand, we need to understand that sin often has deep roots in the experience of an individual or group. We may not be able to feel compassion for what a person has done, but we ought to be able to feel compassion for those experiences that led them to do what they did. Moreover, when we set about the task of addressing sin, we cannot simply address the action. We have to address the underlying attitudes and experiences that enabled the sin to take root.
On the other hand, we cannot make excuses for the sin of others, just as we cannot make excuses for our own sin. Sometimes, the least loving thing that we can do is ignore the sin that permeates the life of an individual or organization. The sin has to be named, and, in some cases at least, it has to be punished.
Such a balanced perspective raises a host of theological, sociological, and political questions related to how we handle egregious transgressions of divine law and human dignity. A complete accounting of such questions—to say nothing of satisfactory answers—is beyond the scope of this blog. But I think that it is important to point out the ways that we so often miss the mark in American society at large and in American Christianity in particular.
On the one hand, there is a tendency among some to recklessly throw people away for any and every transgression. This is wrongheaded not only because all of us have done things that are wrong but also because all of us have acted in such ways precisely because of the negative experiences that we have endured. Of course, one of the reasons that we are so quick to throw people away is because we see genuine repentance so infrequently. It is true that grace cannot do its work without repentance, but we need to keep in mind that one of the things that sin impairs is our ability to rightly evaluate ourselves, our experiences, and our behavior.
On the other hand, there is a tendency among many in the church to see grace as the antidote to all punishment, or at least as the antidote to any punishment that has lasting consequences. I want to tread carefully here; it is all too easy to plead God’s grace over our own wickedness while pronouncing God’s judgement on the wickedness of others. Nevertheless, we must have, as part of our toolkit for doing God’s will in our world, the understanding that sometimes people transgress in a way that likely will not be fully redeemed (or redeemed at all) in this epoch of history. Grace did not shield the criminals who were crucified with Jesus from receiving the penalty prescribed by law for their crimes (Luke 23:39-43), and grace did not prevent Ananias and Sapphira from receiving a deadly rebuke for their act of greed (Acts 5:1-11).
Now, all of this sounds good (or maybe not) as long as there are no specific issues on the table. The rub comes when we start asking whether capital punishment is legitimate, whether sex offenders can be rehabilitated, or even whether pastors who have extramarital affairs can ever be restored to ministry leadership. I am not going to address these or other specific issues, in part because I am unqualified to do so and in part because I am not interested in further dividing an already fractured church and society. What I will say is this. We need to think carefully about issues like these, and we need to talk honestly and charitably with one another about how we might do God’s will in every case.
More to Do
The reflections on sin that I have offered over the last two weeks are by no means fully formed or thoroughly vetted. There is much work that still needs to be done. The language and stories of the Bible need to be analyzed to see if they will support my claims about the nature and origin of sin. The historic convictions of the church need to be consulted to see how they might inform or refute the theory that I have presented. The sociological, psychological, anthropological, and other literature needs to be consulted to see how my ideas might be expounded and applied in real world settings.
I cannot do all of this work—nor, given the nature of the Christian community, should I. We depend on each other, and I am depending on you to carry this work forward. Use your own gifts and training, and reflect upon your own experiences. As you do, we would love it if you would share what you discover with us.